Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Contemporary Popular Culture (class)

I keep mentioning the class I teach in Korean, because it's such a giant presence in my life right now, but I'm also teaching Contemporary Popular Culture. And I have to say, I love teaching the class. The students are awesome, and they are trying very hard. I teach this class in English (although I translate vocab words for them, or answer questions asked in Korean, and even allow them to explain a very difficult thought in Korean), but none of the students are majors in the English language and most of them haven't studied the language since they graduated from high school. It's a larger issue for a couple of them that the class is in English-- but it's a class where I am introducing very theoretical ideas, so it's not easy for any student. (I did give up on having them summarize readings and now I summarize and explain the readings for them, but the ideas are still tough nuts!)

Yet, as you could guess, they love the topic. Today was the fourth class, and they really started to use some of our theoretical terms and ideas. They have mastered the Bechdel Test. They can spot "male gaze" at work in music videos and advertisements. They can (collectively) work out whether something is best described as appropriation, or transculturation, or cultural exchange. They seem to accept "cultural texts" and "media texts" as terms that don't (have to) refer to something written down. They have been exposed to various definitions of popular culture, and I've done my best to explain that we can analyze texts based on cultural reception/use, or production/political economy, or text -- or of course use a hybrid approach.

They are now reliably able to complete short analysis exercises without getting side-tracked by description (there is a woman, she is cheating on her boyfriend) or judgment (he has a good voice, I like this song). The breakthrough on that was last week when the students watched Lorde's "Royals", a song they'd never heard before, and one wrote "the fact that they are boxing (a low-class sport), and just standing in the pool and looking at the tennis court, reinforces the class differences between people who are royal and the video subjects." (I did clean up the English a little for you).

Today I was so obviously pleased with them that they felt pleased with themselves and I think we all left the classroom feeling very happy. One of the students told me during break today that the class has already changed what she sees when she watches music videos (due to the convenient length of music videos, we've used a lot so far, although I am moving on starting next week).

I love teaching this class, and hope I have an opportunity to teach a similar class in the future. Perhaps by focusing it more on Korea, I could teach this as an advanced Korean Studies course.

In the meantime, I must admit I'm enjoying exposing the students to a wide variety of media texts, and actually anticipating reading their first assignments (due next week, on viral videos --their example must not be a music video, however).

I decided to do what I thought was right today, because I feel this class of students can handle it: I told them that if they came to class and turned in all their work, they'd all get an A, not even an A-. I felt a little bit like Peter Sellars as I explained to them that it was not my place to try to figure out if they had done their best work or not. If they wanted to hand me crap and pretend it was their best, they could live with knowing that they were the sort of person who takes the lazy route. I asked them to think of the assignments not as a bothersome item of work, but as exercises that would allow them to engage with the class subject, and help to empower them in a world full of media texts. I asked them to enjoy the assignments without thinking of them as work, or feeling stressed, and to do their best work because they wanted to, not because it was the only way to get an A. They looked at me with a mixture of shock and joy. It was somewhat the same look they gave me when I told them that if they told me honestly, 24 hours in advance, that they'd be missing class, that I could accept that, because they were adults and should be able to decide how to spend their time, as long as they didn't abuse my understanding by missing class often.

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